Syrian regime's core supporters begin to drift away

Support for Assad among the Alawites, a religious minority, is waning. But sectarian hostilities and increasing religiosity make Alawites hesitant to join the opposition.

Khaled al-Hariri/AP/File
A picture of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the central bank building in Damascus, in this 2012 file photo.

After more than two years of conflict, many of President Bashar al-Assad's supporters are questioning their allegiance to the beleaguered regime. But the growth of conservative Islamist groups among the rebels also have many of them wondering whether they can trust the opposition.

The hardest group of regime supporters to convince may be the Alawites, who share a religion with the Assad family. Though a minority within Syria, making up only 10 to 12 percent of the majority-Sunni population, the group has enjoyed preferential treatment for the past four decades of rule by the Assad family – an estimated 70 percent of career soldiers in the Syrian Army battling the opposition and 80 percent of military officers.

As their period of privilege comes to an end, Alawites fear violent reprisals from Sunnis, who fill the ranks of the opposition at every level. 

“The attempt to peel off minorities from the system and give them a place to run was only an effective strategy earlier on, before the uprising became armed and also before the more extremist elements got involved in the fight,” says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of "In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria."

“They don’t know who is in the opposition and they don’t trust the opposition, but at the same time, they also don’t like the regime and realize it’s unsustainable, so they’re in a real bind and in the meantime they do nothing.”

They are also among the most secular in Syria, and perhaps the most likely among the country’s Muslims to be wary of the creation of an Islamic state that many conservative opposition groups now say they want.

“The majority of the minorities are afraid of the future because from the beginning they are not strict, they are liberal-minded,” says Nawar Kassim, an Alawite who is now an accountant in Turkey. 

As the fighting drags on, a number of moderate opposition groups now find themselves sidelined by much better-supported conservative Islamist groups that enjoy a growing base of support among the opposition.

Groups like the ultra-conservative Jabhat al-Nusra, widely believed to receive substantial funding from the Gulf states, are among the most effective groups fighting alongside the opposition. They’ve also earned a reputation as some of the most honest brokers when it comes to issues such as distributing humanitarian aid or settling disputes.

But this winter, the US labeled Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and earlier this month the head of the group officially pledged loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda who replaced Osama bin Laden.

For Syrian Alawites already inundated with government propaganda and state-run media reports branding members of the opposition as "terrorists," the pledge to Mr. Zawahiri, along with a general conservative shift among the opposition, makes them unlikely to change sides even if they have questions about Assad.

“The problem is that all these people from the minorities, they backed off when they saw that Islamic people are increasing in the revolution,” says Loubna Mrie, a prominent Alawite activist who supports the opposition.

Ms. Mrie, a liberal Syrian, says she is far from conservative, but that she she often interacts with members of the Syrian opposition described as extremists without any problems.

Recently a friend still in the Syrian Army told her he wanted to defect, but was hesitant to go through with it do to fears he would be killed by the opposition once he made it to the other side of the lines. “It’s a problem of trust between both sides,” says Mrie.

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